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A commander's call

What does a commander tell his troops on the eve of war?

I have a front row seat Friday as Col. Tom Jones delivers what he says will be his last "commander's call" before war. Hundreds of servicemen and servicewomen gather around a volleyball pit, some standing, and some sitting on picnic tables. There are more than 8,000 people on base, but many units are on alert and unable to attend.

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"You're part of the greatest assembled force in history," says Col. Jones, addressing the group from a raised wooden platform. "You'll do fine because of the people next to you."

I glance to my right and see rows of faces illuminated by the silver of twilight, looking up at their commander with wide, unblinking eyes.

"I don't contemplate any large arrivals from this point," he says, after noting how quickly the base population has swelled. "This is [our] team. Nobody else is coming on."

Like backcountry campers who have fallen silent around a fire, the feeling of brotherhood deepens. The stranger next to you in the dark seems closer than family.

"It's like a big test. You've been studying for this test all your careers," Col. Jones says. "Fight like you're trained."

While he speaks, there are no whoops, no battle cries. "It's going to be horrifying," he says. "If you're looking forward to this, you're wrong."

Many here say they want the war to start, only because it seems preferable to the waiting. "We all have a difficult time watching the news now," says Capt. Dale Robertson of the 524th maintenance squadron. "There's so much speculation out there and we just can't listen to speculation anymore."

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International effort to extend deadlines is like the slow removal of a Band-Aid. "Just get on with it!" and "It isn't getting any cooler!" are two common phrases around camp. It's spring now in the desert, but in summer, temperatures can get well into the 100s.

Until President Bush makes a decision one way or the other, the amount of time before service members can say hello again to family lengthens. Not oil, not promotions, but reunion with family is the real spoil of war for these men and women.

Family is worn on the sleeve here. Marines bring pictures of newborns to the Catholic priest for blessings. People listen again and again to each other's goodbye stories. Tech Sgt. David Lawrence of Monroe, Mich., told me his today.

Lawrence maintains aircraft for the 110th National Guard. His work on high-powered electronics and mechanics prevents him from wearing his wedding ring. So he wears it on a chain around his neck. And after 19 years with the military and numerous call-ups, his wife is trying to convince him that this should be his last mission.

Before he left, Lawrence's son, who will be 3 in June, wanted to wear dad's helmet. "It was too heavy, but he kept trying," says Lawrence.

The night before he shipped out, Lawrence said his son pointed at him and said, stubbornly, "I will see you in the morning."

The final send-off from Col. Jones rings with similar tenderness. "We'll see you on the other side of this thing."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).